So far in 2013, the Minnesota Wild have lived up to their preseason hype — they have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the past few weeks, winners of four straight and 8-1-1 in their last ten games. In front of a ruckus Xcel Energy Center crowd full of Wild fans and a large showing of Winnipeg Jets fans, the Wild finished off their three game home stand strong by defeating their division foe. Though Minnesota hasn’t been scoring many goals in their 2013 campaign, their defense and goaltending is the difference, not allowing the opposition to light the lamp very often.
The Wild currently have 30 points on a 13-4-4 record, a mark that has them in second place in the Central Division. The only team in front of Minnesota is the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, a team stacked top to bottom with quality hockey players. Yet, the Wild are only two points behind — many would argue because our team too is well-endowed.
Even with their great start, the Wild still have a lot of fighting ahead of them. The Western Conference is full of really great hockey teams besides Chicago — so much so, that even with 30 points and second place in the Central, the Wild still only have the fifth most points in the conference. The biggest indicator of the quality of teams in the conference is how much better the West is than the East — with 30 points, the Wild would have the best record if they played in the East. The closest team in the East would be the Tampa Bay Lightning at 28 points, while the rest of the pack plateaus at 25.
With that considered, the Wild need to continue playing at this elite level they are on now to keep pace with the rest of the conference. After playing two beatable Eastern Conference foes (Montreal, Ottawa), the Wild play five straight conference games, with four of those matchups against division rivals. So while the Wild and their fans can celebrate a great ten game stretch, the next ten games and the next are just as crucial for this budding squad.
As of 21 games played, Minnesota has a respectable goal differential of +11. What really strikes me is just how few goals they have scored — they have 55 goals so far in 2013. The Wild have scoring peaks here and there, but for the most part, it appears they are a 2-3 goal per game scoring team. Amongst the other top six teams in the conference, the 55 goals scored pale in comparison to the marks of the other elite teams. The closest team to 55 is St. Louis at 66 — then, looking at the best teams in the conference, all of them are scoring machines. Chicago has 78 goals, Phoenix 73, San Jose 72, and Anaheim 71. These teams are averaging well over three goals a game, while the Wild are averaging only around two and a half. However, in the playoffs, scoring usually slows down and favors defense and goaltending.
Enter Josh Harding and the Wild defense. While the scoring hasn’t been the strong suit of the squad, defense and goaltending has — Josh Harding is still in the top two for goals against average and save percentage. Last week Harding led the league in both categories, but was recently usurped by the Kings Ben Scrivens. Just today the NHL announced its top three stars of the week, Scrivens was one and Harding was number three. Both are playing at an elite level. Even despite “falling” one spot in the goalie rankings, Harding has still been a brick wall in 2013, barely letting even a shimmer of light to touch the back of the net. Part of Harding’s dominance stems from his own great play — the other factor to his glossy numbers stem from the elite defensemen in front of him, barely allowing the opposition to take shots on the Minnesota net minder. Minnesota leads the league in shots allowed, only forfeiting 24 a game.
Both Ryan Suter (who barely leaves the ice) and Jonas Brodin (minus his time missed for injury) have been on point all season. These two are helping to keep great scoring chances away from Harding, making his job much easier in net. Brodin and Suter are also helping to cultivate (though Brodin is just a pup himself) the other defensemen like Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon. Scandella and Spurgeon have shown noticeable improvements in all facets of their game and have helped fortify the defense in front of Harding.
Night in and night out the Wild defensemen are holding their opposition to a small number of shots on net, a true formula for long-term success.
I also have to remark on Ryan Suter — not only for how well he is playing, but for how much he is playing. He averages almost 30 minutes of time on the ice per game (29.36), more than two minutes higher than the next guy on the list. After the Wild won at home versus Winnipeg, in a post game interview Suter said how he wishes he could play even more — he didn’t even look tired after logging over 30 minutes in Sunday’s game (he’s logged over 30 minutes in five of the last six games). It’s one thing to have a guy you can rely on to soak up ice time, it’s quite another to have a guy out there for half the game dominating the backend. His offensive numbers aren’t flashy (0 goals, 13 assists), but his presence on the ice, on both ends, is substantial. He helps set up goals on the offensive end, and on defense, Suter is shutting down the opposition like Revis Island.
It has been extremely exciting to watch the Wild this season — 2013 has been one of the franchise’s most promising campaigns, and it has just begun. One fourth of the season is on the books, and if the final three-fourths play like this start, the State of Hockey will have a legion of ecstatic fans. The team could use a boost in scoring, but it shouldn’t pose a problem as long as Harding and the defense are shutting teams down. Josh Harding, stay healthy. Please.
Photos via: Minnesota Wild and Star Tribune